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I became conscious of myself around two years of age when Mom gave me a bath and held a mirror up to my face with shampoo bubbles in my curls! She poured water over me and the bubbles disappeared like magic. Tingling all over, I smiled at my image and felt so very warm. Mom wiped my face with a soft towel and kissed my cheek. Her smile and blue eyes met mine and somehow I knew I existed. Ever since that time I only remember seeing my father twice.
My earliest memory of Dad occurred with Mom at Miami Beach in 1942. The Florida sunshine, fresh breeze, Atlantic Ocean, and its warm waters always delighted Mom and me. On a bright day she said, “We’re going to the beach to see your Daddy.” I ran up to the kitchen table to look at the picture of my father in his navy blue uniform and white cap. He fought German submarines on his ship and had a few hours of liberty to join us.
I lived with Mom after their third and final divorce, was nearly three years old, and had no recollection of him. Mom took off my tennis shoes and trousers and said, “Put your feet in here.” I squirmed into my brown khaki bathing suit. Mom buttoned the straps that went around my neck to my trunks.
We drove to our favorite spot and walked past a line of towering coconut palm trees. Their green glistening leaves hung down from the blue cloud-streaked sky. Coconut husks, driftwood, and shells cluttered the sand leading to the ocean. Small waves slapped the shoreline and receded with rhythmic sloshing. Pelicans and seagulls squealed, dove for fish, and glided with the wind currents below clouds that resembled white animals. The shapes changed size as the winds moved them.
Mom wore a two-piece light-blue swimming suit with a turquoise and yellow bandana back of her brown wave. She was tall, had blue eyes, a deep tan, radiant smile, joyful disposition, and looked like a movie star. She held my hand and guided me toward the beach. A calm breeze coming off the water slightly bent the palm trees. White flowers scattered like snowflakes from jasmine shrubs exuded an intoxicating fragrance. Golden butterflies circled and landed around the leaves diverting my attention from finding a spot for our beach gear.
Mom planted her duffle bag in shade under a palm tree on a slope of sand that led to the beach. She applied cocoa butter on my face, shoulders, chest, and legs. I raced towards the water and screamed “Ouch.” The blazing sand burned my feet. An incoming wave cooled them and sent water up my legs that retreated through my feet. Mother’s arms welcomed me back in a dash.
“Look at all the colored shells,” Mom said. “They move and display themselves when the water pushes them. Let’s gather some in your pail.” My tiny yellow spatula snagged pebbles and shells into my hands and my fingers separated the white, yellow, and brown ones from the colored pebbles. The water returned to the ocean and trickled through my feet and wiggling toes that scrambled in the watery sand. Dropping my treasure in my red pail, I showed my reward to Mom.
“What a precious gift the ocean brought you.” The sun sparkled on small whitecaps, foam and waves of bubbling water mixed with sand, shells, and pebbles that became a briny blend. The reflection of the sun shimmered from the buttery lotion on my drenched body. “Put down your pail and come in the water.”
Laying my hoard in the sand I ran to Mom. She held my hand and guided me into shallow warm water. A large shell
appeared near me. “Look!”
Mom grasped it, “You found an abalone.” She twisted the convex shaped mollusk around glinting iridescent deep blues, greens, pink, red, and purples from the inner surface of the mother-of-pearl source. “When you hold it up to your ear you can hear the ocean. I’ll put it in your pail.” Scooting to our blanket with my prize, I raised the precious wonder to my right ear. A whistling wind greeted me like an imaginary sea inhabited nature’s masterpiece.
“Here I come.” Darting in Mom’s direction like a sprinter scattering sand with each thrust, my legs and feet splashed through the water. Mom turned and gently pulled me toward her when the water reached my waist.
“Hold out your arms and kick your feet. Make a cup with your hands like this.” She showed me how to reach out, grab some water, and pull back.” I tried, but started to sink. She held my hands, pulled me into her arms, and played with me. I laughed and moved through the waves knowing she wouldn’t let me drop under. “Here comes your Father.”
A tall man with dark hair slicked straight back walked toward me in his navy blue swimming trunks. His athletic stride showed off his muscular arms and legs. He bent down and smiled, “Hello, Danny. What a big strong boy you are. I’m going to teach you how to swim.” Mom trusted him, knowing he was an excellent swimmer.
He held my hand and we walked through small waves. When the water became deeper he carried me about twenty feet from the shore and dropped me after a wave passed. Sinking below the surface, wheezing and puffing, I tried to catch my breath, gulped, and panted. When unable to breathe, I choked. Salty ocean water entered my nose and mouth. Terrified, I bobbed up and looked for Mom, but couldn’t see her. He clutched my arms and tugged me to him and then let go. Under I sank again.
“Kick your feet, grab the water, and pull back.”
Kicking didn’t help as the ocean closed over me, again and again. Mother was only a speck on the sand, “I want Mommy,” I gasped.
“Danny, be a big boy. Don’t cry. Kick your legs and move your arms in the water.” I tried to do as he said, but sank each time he dropped me. My body moved slightly towards him before the water blanketed my head. Dad kept retreating, which forced me try to advance in the ocean. Progressing a short distance ended in another immersion. Warm salty water rushed into my mouth compelling me to swallow some. Each time I submerged, Dad eventually grabbed me and repeated the same process. After about half an hour, he got frustrated. “Ok. I’ll take you to your Mother.”
He picked me up and carried me back to Mom who gently pulled me to her chest. The ordeal exhausted me. I had failed Dad’s test. Mom wrapped me in a towel and sat me down with my pail and shovel.
Dad went to a concession in a red brick patio with showers near some shade. He put coins in a jukebox that sent Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and raspy voice bellowing “St. Louis Blues” and “Jeepers Creepers” across the beach. Benny Goodman’s clarinet, rhythms, and music wafting “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “They’ll Be Some Changes Made” followed.
The smell of a grill and spices on meat made my stomach growl. He appeared holding Oscar Meyer wieners with relish, chopped onions, deli-mustard on sesame buns, French fries on paper plates, and ice-cold cokes in white and red cups. He carried the food to a table along with a large can of ice cold Schlitz.
After we devoured our meal he said, “I have to go back to my ship.” He bent over, and gave me a kiss.
“Look at my shells.”
Glancing at his watch and he said, “I must leave now. Goodbye, Danny.” He gathered his things and quickly walked away without kissing Mom.
The rest of the day I played a game called “You can’t touch me.” Bolting to the edge of the water when a wave broke on the shore, I ran faster than the water climbing up the slight slope towards the hot sand and shouted, “You can’t touch me.” Up and down the shoreline I chased the watery suds yelling at my ocean playmate until drained and huddled next to Mom.
“Listen to the breeze, watch the waves, and smell the ocean,” she said in a soft voice. The breeze pushed ripples with a gentle whistle, formed white bubbly foam, and produced a salty aroma. I curled up next to her on our blue beach towel. The sound of her calm voice was like the smooth water murmuring beyond the swirling white caps. My fear vanished and I drifted into sleep.